Heat waves, blizzards, hurricanes and other severe weather events have already shown the numerous vulnerabilities of the U.S. power grid system by inducing blackouts and massive power outages throughout the country. As the system grows older and severe weather seemingly occurs more often, concerns regarding the system's flaws are mounting.
As the leading cause of power outages in the U.S., severe weather has caused more than 675 power outages between 2003 and 2012, costing the U.S. approximately $18 billion to $33 billion per year, according to a report by the President's Council of Economic Advisers and the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.
The construction of the current grid began in the late 1880s and while portions of the grid have been updated and changed over time, more than 70 percent of the grid's transmission lines and transformers are at least 25 years old, according to the report.
Understanding the U.S. Power Grid
The operation and day-to-day functionality of the U.S. power grid can be explained more simply in comparison to the human heart, according to renowned Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor at the University of Minnesota Dr. Massoud Amin.
It begins with a customer who turns on a light, when that light is turned on millions of electrons travel instantaneously at the speed of light to provide electricity to that room without delay. These electrons travel from more than 150,000 generators across the United States and into four major subregions, taking the path of least resistance or the power lines with the least traffic.
Unlike a piping system these electrons must be balanced as electricity is transferred across the country. This must occur before its voltage is repeatedly broken down to a lower voltage that can be used in a home or business, etc. Once the voltage is broken down, it is then delivered to its requester.
However, when hundreds of people go to turn on the light at the same time, the system must work harder to deliver more electricity immediately, without delay. This process can be compared to the way the human body pumps blood faster through veins and arteries to the heart in a stressful situation like exercise, versus circulation to the heart when the body is at rest.
"Think of a massive scale system that has to work nearly perfectly," said Amin.
Since the birth of the grid, severe weather has induced some of its headline outages. The most recent being Superstorm Sandy that slammed the New Jersey coast last year, leaving millions without power for weeks. Sandy contributed to the $27 billion to $52 billion dollars that outages cost the U.S. that year, according to a White House report.
When severe weather hits an area, the demand for electricity increases in that area and as a result more energy is acquired from the system. Due to a variety of factors including the aging system, the amount of the grid that exists above ground and the inability to re-route power when a specific pathway fails, the grid then fails and results in a power outage.
In the United States, annual weather outages have been on the rise since the 1950s.
"From 2008 to 2012, such weather-related incidents increased to between 70 and 130 outages per year," Amin said. "In the '60s, '70s and '80s, these were only about 20 percent of major outages but now 68 to 74 percent of outages have weather as the primary cause."
Other than the inability to provide power when the grid is interrupted, a power outage results in major economic losses in multiple facets of corporate America.
"Manufacturing companies, financial corporations, consulting IT services and data centers are hit hardest when it comes to power outages," Owner of Providence GIS Solutions Jason Tuck said.
Each year, the industry that weighs in as the top financial loser fluctuates, determined by the severity of nature, Tuck explains.
In recent years, the 2011 tsunamis in Japan hit companies Sony and Toyota hard economically. Just this year, Amazon.com experienced a power outage that cost the company millions in just a few minutes.
A Stronger Power Grid Infrastructure Needed
While weather may be the leading cause of grid outages, it is certainly not the only problem that needs to be addressed, experts say.
"The grid must become stronger, more secure and more resilient," Amin said.
Advanced grid meter infrastructure, the rebuilding of underground substations to be above ground on elevated surfaces, proactive risk assessment by region, better leadership in the public and private sectors and unity between federal and local jurisdiction are the principal issues that need to be addressed in order to enhance the grid's ability, according to Amin.
Currently, the smart grid system is the main proponent for working to fix the system.
These smart grids can continually monitor themselves, search for potential problems and allow isolation when portions of the system fail. Already, according to Amin, money has been allocated to begin this process but that is only one step toward a solution.
"This is just the beginning of a multi-decade solution for change," Amin said. "It has to be a two- to three-decade involvement, a 20-year commitment to make the grid highly reliable in most circumstances, so that outages are less catastrophic than Sandy."
AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions Help Businesses Save Money
AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions can provide its services to keep businesses alert before, after and during severe weather situations to save businesses lives, property and finances.
Prior to the massive ice storm in Oklahoma in 2010, AccuWeather was the only company to forecast snow in Kansas but ice in the neighboring state. AccuWeather meteorologists predicted that the ice storm would severely damage Oklahoma's electrical system and likely cause days of power outages.
Based upon AccuWeather's forecast, Westar Energy made the decision to send their crews to Oklahoma an entire day before the storm. Upon the arrival and completion of the storm, crews were already in place to rebuild the hundreds of power poles and lines downed by the storm, in order to get the power back up and running in a timely manner.
"We are able to create this value for our clients not just because we are experts in extreme weather and forecasting the same, but because we understand our clients businesses and weather vulnerabilities. So, we are able to anticipate critical situations," Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Executive for AccuWeather's Enterprise Solutions Mike Smith said.
With the multitude of challenges associated with the improvement of the U.S. power grid and the years that those improvements will take, severe weather will continue cause damage to the system. Even as the leading cause of power outages, severe weather can be proactively prepared for to help save lives, build profits and minimize losses and AccuWeather can help.